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17.11.2008 | Halya Coynash

Trial by Headline

   

The Ukrainian version of this text was written as a response to a series of articles about and by skinheads published in the Vinnytsa newspaper “33 kanal”. Despite the paper’s invitation to participate in discussion, it proved unwilling to publish an article which pointed, amongst other things, to total misinformation .  A very big thank you to the Institute for Mass Information (IMI), “Telekritika” and UNIAN who immediately responded to my request to publish the text!

If the headline attracts your attention, the aim’s achieved. Judge for yourselves: “WHY WHEN THEY BEAT UP UKRAINIANS IS EVERYBODY SILENT, and when they beat up a Jew or Arab, everybody’s shouting?”  Who’s silent?! I asked indignantly, but read on. Then I looked into it since more than just the fictitious silence aroused doubts.

.On 20 September an inebriated young man walked up to some people he assumed were Arab students in a subway in Vinnytsa. Something happened, though it is still not clear what. However since the young man ended up in hospital with knife wounds, we can assume that a criminal investigation should be initiated. On the other hand, the young man has not approached the police and has lodged no formal statement.

He did complain about the assailants to his mates and they ran … No, not to the police, but to the editorial office of a city newspaper “33 Kanal”. Along the way their wounded friend, one of the leaders of the UNTP [national socialist party] and involved in the Nazi movement since 2005, turned into an anonymous “young Ukrainian”. That by the way is only one of the many details which are modified in the national socialists’ version of reality for the press. You can understand why they weren’t in a hurry to go to the police who would have certainly wanted details. Here instead you have a scandal in capital letters with virtually no questions asked.  Their way, presumably, of “speeding things up” – do without the police, investigators and court and just pass your own headline verdict.

However verdicts can be appealed and headlines should also be subjected to analysis so as to not spread false information and harmful myths. After all it’s the headline which gets remembered even when the article isn’t read.

It’s worth noting that there are a fairly large number of attacks on foreigners which don’t get “shouted about”. The victims are afraid to complain and remain silent. The police need to consider how to increase people’s trust in them and confidence that complaints will be adequately dealt with.

We all need to shout when attacks are made. Who, excuse me, would ask to see a passport before helping a person in need? And it must be on every occasion, regardless of ethnic origin or anything else, to make sure that the aggressors don’t become cocky. We have to quite simply because we are human beings and violence threatens us all.

Let’s return to our newspaper courtroom. The national socialists are outraged that supposedly “public attention is turned to beatings of Jews, Arabs, Chinese people, and when they beat up Ukrainians, that’s not considered news”. They approached the newspaper in fact specifically to express their point of view regarding the assault in the centre of the city on the Chief Rabbi of Vinnytsa.

There is a vital difference which should not be overlooked between a court and its newspaper substitute. A court clearly differentiates between facts and point of view, which, to state the obvious, by no means always coincide. Firstly the thugs attacked not only the Chief Rabbi, but also his three-year-old son. The court would not pay attention to any diseased national socialist ideas about who should be considered Ukrainian and who not, who is entitled to live in the country, etc. And it is not only a court of law that is able to assess views which justify an attack on a three-year-old child.

The national socialists clearly realize themselves that there’s nothing to be proud of since they are not too accurate, shall we say, in their description of the attack. The details can be checked since unlike their wounded friend, the Rabbi immediately made a statement to the police and suspects were detained. The national socialists’ “point of view” is silent about the child and speaks of only one assailant. And instead of explaining how the thugs can justify hitting a child, they go on about ancestors defending their country and religious texts (about the people of Israel being the chosen race, etc) written thousands of years ago.

On the subject of ancestors, my relatives also defended their country, including by fighting against the Nazis and I have no words to express the bitter sorrow that any young Ukrainian could attack a child, or any other person for that matter, chanting “Heil Hitler” and other foul abominations.

It is regrettable that the newspaper did not pay attention to the twisted or simply untruthful parts of the story. Why not ask these warriors some questions? This is not because I disagree with them. If I express my point of view on any issue, especially if at the same time I describe a verifiable event, I must be ready to give proof of the facts and to argue my position. Otherwise what have we got? I can present some absolutely unfounded allegation as objective fact and indignantly ask how this is possible. A scandal ready made.

I understand the wish to give people with different views the opportunity to present them.  However we shouldn’t forget that it is what we read at this moment that has an impact and its better to immediately provide an alternative view or ask hard-hitting questions. The reader can thus be warned that there can be well-founded doubts as to the presentation of events and not just ideological differences.

I am not proposing any form of censorship however there must be balance. Both in the original article and the responses to it we read many overtly anti-Semitic and xenophobic utterances with effectively nothing done to counter them. In the text the national socialists defend their right to support “any movement”. That statement, I’m afraid, needs qualification. Yes, they can support any movement that does not advocate violence or incite enmity. Nor of course does freedom of opinion give them the right to push lies and deceive people.

It would be inconceivable in a court for one side to have to wait a week to be given the chance to cross examine or put forward objections. As far as I can see the situation with the press is even more acute since a reader may simply not understand that facts have been twisted, or are being presented in a highly specific and biased manner.

It is crucial that journalists through their presentation, concern that alternative views are presented, and mainly through their questions, ensure high-quality and balanced information.

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